Charles Bukowski Bukowski, Charles (Poetry Criticism) - Essay


(Poetry Criticism)

Charles Bukowski 1920–1994

(Full name Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) American poet, novelist, and essayist

Charles Bukowski was one of the most individual poets of the post-modern age. Influenced by Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, his poetry reflected both the despair of the 1950s' Beat movement and the rebelliousness of the protesters of the 1960s. Although Bukowski lived most of his life in California, he did not belong to or associate with any of the literary circles of Los Angeles or San Francisco, such as the Beats or the Bay Area school. He was a lifelong outsider who mocked the pretensions of the literary elite and developed his own freewheeling, raw, and belligerent style as a means of expressing his dissatisfaction with traditional, middle-class morals and values. His main character-type (which is considered to be a self-portrait), the hard-drinking, womanizing, tough-talking man who associated with the "little people" in bars, race tracks and cheap hotels, came to represent the "Bukowski image" of the isolated individual at odds with society. Such "shock" poetry made Bukowski a seminal figure in underground literature. Within the scholarly community, however, little attention has been given to his poetry and prose.

Biographical Information

Born in Andernach, Germany in 1920, Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. was the only child of an American soldier and a German mother. The family immigrated to Los Angeles in 1922, and settled in a middle-class neighborhood, where Bukowski was teased by the other children because of his German heritage, making him feel as though he did not belong. Bukowski's father dominated his early life, controlling the household by way of unbreakable rules, reinforced with a strap or a ruler, that were imposed to maintain the façade of middle-class respectability. Bukowski hated his father and all that he represented: the economic and emotional success supposedly offered in return for hard work and patriotism: the American dream. Bukowski's disdain for his father and the lifestyle he embodied is prevalent in all of his poetry and fiction, as well as in his subsequent anti-authoritarian lifestyle. The beginning of the Depression coincided with Bukowski's entering high school, intensifying his father's abusive and tyrannical nature, and driving the young Bukowski to retreat into alcohol abuse. Bukowski attended Los Angeles City College from 1939 to 1941, but dropped out and spent a decade working at menial jobs while struggling with alcoholism. After being hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer in 1955, he curbed his alcoholism and turned to writing poetry.

From the late 1950s onward, Bukowski developed his distinctive montage style and published several long prose pieces in underground literary magazines. These experiments resulted in the irregular, disjointed, and fragmented form seen in Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and helped Bukowski to define his literary position as an arrogant, anarchistic, and defiant anti-hero aligned against the literary elite. The late 1960s and the early 1970s was a very productive and creative time for Bukowski, and much of the work produced during this time formed the basis for subsequent books, including Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts; Erections, Ejaculations, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness; and South of No North. The 70s saw a tremendous increase in his readership and a growing reputation. Focusing on longer fiction, Bukowski produced a number of novels and memoirs in a type of transmogrified autobiographical narrative similar to Kerouac's. In 1987, his novel, Barfly, was made into a movie starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, for which he wrote the screenplay. He later based a novel, Hollywood, on his experiences. Bukowski continued to write prolifically: his 1992 poetry collection The Last Night of the Earth Poems is over four hundred pages long. Bukowski died of leukemia in 1994.

Major Works

Despite the number of Bukowski's early chapbooks, it was not until the collections It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965) were published in the early 1960s that his poetry attracted critical attention. In his preface to Crucifix in a Deathhand, critic John William Corrington characterizes Bukowski's poetry as "the spoken voice nailed to paper." Bukowski's reputation grew as his essays and short fiction were collected and published in Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). His first novel, Post Office (1971), became a counter-cultural classic and helped to establish the "Bukowski image". The transformation of his novel Barfly from a novel into a successful film helped bring Bukowski to the attention of the younger "MTV" generation and again expanded his readership. Bukowski wrote prolifically throughout his life, and published poetry, short stories, and novels in underground journals and small presses. With the publication of Septuagenarian Stew (1990) and The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992) came grudging acknowledgement by mainstream critics that Bukowski had earned a place in the literary canon. At the close of his life, then, Bukowski was perceived by the bourgeois critics he opposed as the patriarch and appointed spokesman of the newest generation of anti-establishment writers.

Critical Reception

While small presses, literary magazines, and underground journals have published and reviewed Bukowski's work since the 1950s, academic critics and anthologists have largely ignored him. This is due in part to his producing a large number of small chapbooks, often containing only one longer work or a few short poems, rather than fulllength books. Other factors influencing the critical neglect of his work include his subject matter and his language, both portraying drunks, bums, and down-and-outs who are street wise and trashy. It is precisely these qualities that has earned Bukowski his large following that cuts across generation lines and includes predominantly nonacademic readers with eclectic and anti-establishment tastes. While his work has attracted such a diverse readership and a generation of imitators, acceptance and praise from the literary or academic establishments has been slow in coming, as Bukowski is seen as a writer of quantity not quality. His death in 1994 at the age of 74 has brought about the re-issuing of many of his books as well as a reappraisal of his position within the framework of midto-late-twentieth century American poetry.

Principal Works

(Poetry Criticism)


Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail 1960

Longshot Pomes for Broke Players 1962

Run with the Hunted 1962

Poems and Drawings 1962

It Catches My Heart in its Hands: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1963 1963

Grip the Walls 1964

Cold Dogs in the Courtyard 1965

Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, 1963–1965 1965

Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live with Beasts 1965

The Genius of the Crowd 1966

True Story 1966

On Going Out to Get the Mail 1966

To Kiss the Worms Goodnight 1966

The Girls 1966

All the Assholes in the World and Mine 1966

The Flower Lover 1966

Night's Work 1966

2 by Bukowski 1967

The Curtains are Waving 1967

At Terror Street and Agony Way 1968

Poems Written before Jumping out of an 8-Story Window 1968

If We Take…. 1969

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills 1969

Another Academy 1970

Fire Station 1970


(The entire section is 442 words.)

Thomas McGrath (essay date 1962)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Variety in Verse," in National Guardian, May 21, 1962, p. 12.

[In the following review of Longshot Pomes for Broke Players, critic and poet McGrath finds Bukowski's wry humor admirable, despite his reservations about the poet's style.]

Here's Charles Bukowski's Longshot Pomes for Broke Players. The misspelling in the title will probably cause one set of potential readers to shy off. But there is nothing arch about the book. It is an example of what the Beat was before it fell into holiness and hysteria. While much Beat poetry has gone dead or "commercial," it had in it once something of value which we can see clearly in Bukowski's work. Here is...

(The entire section is 475 words.)

R. R. Cuscaden (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski: Poet in a Ruined Landscape," in The Outsider, Vol. 1, No. 3, Spring, 1963, pp. 62–5.

[In the following review of Bukowski's first three collections, Cuscaden discusses how the poet attempts to overcome despair through his verse.]

All of Bukowski's major interests and themes are in evidence in his first book, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail: indeed, they are defined in the volume's title. These early poems are not equally successful; too much reliance is placed upon a dated surrealistic technique and in neglecting the use of the first person singular Bukowski fails to employ a strength which gives unity to his later work. Nevertheless,...

(The entire section is 1065 words.)

Joseph Swastek (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poems and Drawings, in Polish American Studies, Vol. XX, No. 1, January-June, 1963, pp. 55–6.

[In the essay below, Swastek finds Bukowski's poetry eccentric but honest and authentic]

Polish-American poetry, written in English, has had a variety of male and female voices pitched in different keys. The masculine contingent includes Uriel Joseph Piduch (Autumn Leaves, 1920), Raymond Kresensky (Emmaus, 1931), Edmond Kowalewski (Deaf Walls, 1933), Alan Edward Symanski (Against Death in Spring, 1934), John H. Drechney (Nature Smiles, 1947), Joseph Cherwinski (No Blue Tomorrow, 1952), Zygmunt Kurowski...

(The entire section is 706 words.)

John William Corrington (essay date 1963)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski and the Savage Surfaces," in Northwest Review, Vol. 6, No.4, Fall, 1963, pp. 123–29.

[In the review below of It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, Corrington characterizes Bukowski as a "surface" poet who "is capable of producing a poetry of pure emotion in which idea, information, the narrative or anecdote, is held to a minimum. "]

The recent publication of Charles Bukowski's selected poems [It Catches My Heart in Its Hands] marks a kind of watershed in the career of one of the West Coast's most striking poets….

As those who know his poetry will testify, Bukowski's poems go well enough one by one. But there is...

(The entire section is 2002 words.)

Stuart Newton (essay date 1976)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Poems Written Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window, in West Coast Review, Vol. 10, No. 3, February, 1976, p. 41.

[In the excerpt below, Newton notes Bukowski's equation of individualism with isolation.]

Poems written before jumping out of an 8 story window is not Bukowski's best book; it is too hurried. But it does contain all his familiar subjects: his drinking, writing, and sex; he haunts dirty bars, cheap hotel rooms, and the night streets of Los Angeles. The classic Bukowski characters are the whores, bums, and the solid bartenders. All this occurs at the brink of modern society: Los Angeles. In fact, Los Angeles is very...

(The entire section is 261 words.)

Gerald Locklin (essay date 1982)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dangling in the Tournefortia, in The American Book Review, Vol. 4, No. 5, July-August, 1982, p. 6.

[In the following essay, Locklin praises Bukowski's work and declares that he is "undeniably a chronicler of politically significant phenomena. "]

Let me at once admit my bias: I think Bukowski is a writer of at least the stature of a Henry Miller. I also think he has been mistreated—or treated to a conspiracy of silence—by the American literary establishment and by factions outside the establishment as well. But he hasn't gone away. To the contrary, he and his American and European publishers have prospered. Films of his work are beginning...

(The entire section is 1132 words.)

Gerald Locklin (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of War All the Time and Horses Don't Bet on People & Neither Do I, in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. V, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 34–6.

[Here, Locklin claims that, in his mid-sixties, Bukowski is reaching his prime, composing narratives comparable to those of Ernest Hemingway.]

I felt that Bukowski returned to top form as a poet in Dangling in the Tournefortia (1981)…. . These two recent collections [War All the Time and Horses Don't Bet on People & Neither Do I] do not represent a falling off; on the contrary they present numerous examples of Bukowski at work in what has always been his strongest...

(The entire section is 1370 words.)

Stephen Kessler (essay date 1985)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Notes on a Dirty Old Man," in The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 60–3.

[In the essay below, Kessler defends Bukowski's writing from attacks by the literary establishment, arguing that his work displays "an increasingly persuasive truthfulness, a sense of honest simplicity which makes his books easy to read, offensive to some, sad and funny—in short, lifelike."]

(The entire section is 2069 words.)

Stephen Kessler (essay date 1993)

(Poetry Criticism)

SOURCE: "Bukowski Unbound," in Poetry Flash, No. 238, January, 1993, pp. 1, 6–7, 9.

[In the following essay, Kessler offers a broad survey of Bukowski's work and describes the poet as "a human being of extraordinary character, an indomitable personality who has grown in stature with every document he produces."]

The photo in back of Charles Bukowski's latest collection of poems [The Last Night of the Earth Poems]—a four hundred page tome turned out as the author was approaching and passing seventy—shows a face seasoned by pain and suffering into an expression of tough equanimity, of weary compassion for the human dilemma. It is a face facing up to its own...

(The entire section is 2288 words.)

Further Reading

(Poetry Criticism)


Dorbin, Sanford. A Bibliography of Charles Bukowski. Los Angeles: Black Sparrow Press, 1969, 93 p.

Partially annotated primary and secondary bibliography through 1968.

Fox, Hugh. Charles Bukowski: A Critical and Bibliographical Study. Sommerville, MA: Abyss Publications, 1969, 121 p.

Fox offers a comprehensive study of Bukowski's work through 1968, and a comprehensive study of all published work and reviews from 1944 through 1969.


Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank: The Life of Charles...

(The entire section is 521 words.)